In this historical fiction picture book, Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte, both African American, start their own shoe store when they learn that they cannot try on shoes at the shoe store.
When I was about four years old my mother took me to Stride Rite to get new sneakers. I picked out the greatest sneakers to ever have been crafted. They were yellow, red, blue, and green. And on the sole of these sneakers was a . . .LION! I cannot tell you how much I loved these shoes. Every time (every single time) I met someone out and about I would ask them “Do you want to see the lion on the bottom of my sneaker?” Of course I would show them regardless of their answer because in my mind everyone needed to experience the awesomeness of the lion on the bottom of these incredible multi-colored shoes. I soon outgrew them and was fitted for a new pair exactly like them. It became a joke with the shoe store staff when we would show up for a new pair. The salesman would ask “Shall I just get you the next size up?” And my mom, in hopes that the next size up might not fit quite right and I would be forced to choose a pair that were less of a conversation starter, would reply “let’s at least try them on to be sure.” They always fit perfectly.
Around this same time my favorite book was “New Blue Shoes” by Eve Rice about a little girl who goes to pick out a new pair of shoes. The little girl chooses blue ones but her mother would like her to choose something more “sensible.” Are you noticing a theme?
So when “New Shoes” by Susan Lynn Meyer showed up in our collection I promptly read it. And cried. We hear about Jim Crow laws and see the old footage of children going to school with police and military escorts but this book really and truly drove home the enormity of the inequality African Americans faced on a day to day basis. Getting to try on new shoes as a kid was something I loved and looked forward to. The fact that a person could not enjoy that very small freedom simply because of the shade of their skin makes me ache with sympathy, shame, and injustice. The girls use their ingenuity to create a less humiliating shoe shopping experience for their community but it is still not equal.